Bridging the Urban-Rural Digital Divide

Theresia Morandell, Eurac Research

Relevance of the Practice

The recent trend towards e-government at local level has been greatly accelerated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Social distancing requirements have pushed local administrations to enhance digitalization processes and to broaden the scope of services offered online, from administrative services to e-education and e-health services. This pressure to go online poses significant challenges for local governments in rural and remote areas where adequate, high-speed internet infrastructure is oftentimes absent.[1] Digital inclusion is indeed not only a matter of citizens’ digital capabilities and literacy (so-called second-order digital divide related to internet use), but poor infrastructure prevents citizens from using digital tools in the first place (so-called first-order digital divide related to internet access).[2] The pandemic has highlighted this digital divide between urban and rural areas and exacerbated already existing disparities in a host of countries, among which Italy.

Italy ranks only 23rd among the EU-Member States in terms of fixed high-speed broadband connectivity, based on the 2020 edition of the European Commission’s DESI-Index. With a score of 49.6 out of 100 it lies well below the EU-average of 58/100.[3] Low connectivity rates are predominantly recorded in small and mountain territories that account for more than 50 per cent of the Italian territory, 8 million citizens and 10 per cent of the national GDP.[4] In three out of four mountain municipalities less than 40 per cent of housing units have, on average, access to high-speed broadband internet. The problem of poor infrastructure is most pressing in the Alpine territories, followed by the northern-central Apennine regions, while southern mountain regions are slightly better off. Low-speed internet infrastructure renders telework and access to digital public services difficult and therefore reduces the economic competitiveness of the affected rural and mountain territories.[5] In view of this urban-rural digital divide, it is key for Italy’s recent strategy for universal broadband coverage to succeed.

Description of the Practice

The Italian strategy to overcome the urban-rural digital divide involves all levels of government, from the supranational EU level down to the national, regional and local level. Reference point for the national strategy is the 2010 European Digital Agenda that sets out basic strategic tenets to ensure universal broadband coverage in high- as well as low-density areas by 2020, through a combination of incentivized private and ‘carefully targeted’ public investment in networks.[6] In its national-level response, the Italian Government adopted the ‘Italian Ultra-Broadband Strategy’ and a correlated investment plan (BUL Plan)[7] in 2015. The BUL Plan as main instrument to meet European objectives aims at closing infrastructural and market gaps in the provision of high-speed broadband internet and to thereby guarantee greater social and territorial cohesion.

The Italian broadband strategy can be seen as an example of multi-level policy-making which includes and entangles the national, regional and local levels. The strategy is coordinated by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (i.e. the Prime Minister) via a multi-body committee (COBUL).[8] Main responsibility for implementation and the coordination of all private and public actors involved lies with the Ministry of Economic Development (MISE) and its in-house company Infratel. Regional involvement is guaranteed by a 2016 framework agreement elaborated within the Conference of the State, Regions and Autonomous Provinces,[9] and stipulated region by region with the MISE in order to allow for in-detail planning agreements tailored to the local context.[10] The regions, in turn, are committed to promote agreements and conventions with local governments  in order to accelerate the issuing of authorizations and permits to open construction sites (Article 5(2)(a.1) of the framework agreement). Formal involvement of the municipal level is therefore rather limited and revolves around those latter administrative tasks in the implementation process, while the regions clearly are the more influential players when it comes to the representation of local administrations within the national BUL framework.

The BUL Plan roughly subdivides the Italian territory into three areas for public intervention, to be targeted in two phases. Phase I is most relevant to rural local governments and envisages the construction of a publicly owned broadband infrastructure in so-called ‘white’ areas of market failure where private investments are limited or absent.[11] This public infrastructure will in a second step be made available to private service providers, and is financed with EUR 3 billion stemming from national and European funds.[12] Phase II targets quality and speed improvements in ‘grey’ and ‘black’ competition areas in which one or more broadband networks are present already. These areas thus largely correspond to higher-density and urban territories. Other than direct intervention in the style of Phase I, public intervention, as envisaged by the BUL Plan, can take the form of public contributions and private-public partnerships, depending on the specific territorial context and degree of market competitiveness.[13]

Within 2020, the BUL Plan originally aimed at a 100 per cent broadband connectivity rate at a speed of at least 30 Mbps, and at a 85 per cent coverage with higher speed networks of at least 100 Mbps.[14] There have, however, been repeated slowdowns in the implementation of the plan so that finalization is currently envisaged by the end of 2023. A major reason for lagging implementation is attributed to local-level delays in the issuing of authorizations. This is mainly due to the large number of actors involved, as several public entities (besides the municipalities in charge of the bureaucratic process also provinces, for example) and publicly-owned companies (in charge of managing strategic infrastructure such as roads) have to give their clearance for the authorizations to proceed.[15] As repeatedly pointed out by the National Union of Mountain Towns and Communities (UNCEM), this slowdown is a particularly bitter pill for mountain municipalities as they are predominantly located in the white areas individuated by the plan.[16]

Interestingly, limited formal involvement of municipalities in the national broadband strategy is contrasted by a lot of LGA activity. Firstly, UNCEM[17] engages in continuous dialogue and meetings with public actors involved in the coordination and implementation of the BUL Plan, especially with the Ministries of Economic Development and Digitalization, but also with the Ministries of Regional Affairs and Territorial Cohesion. Given the accumulating delays, these actions are designed to pressurize government into resolute political interventions to unlock and accelerate the implementation process. More specifically, UNCEM’s appeals to the various public actors (besides the ministries, COBUL and Infratel also Parliament and the regions) include repeated demands for enhanced coordination with the municipal level, a re-definition of the implementation process with fixed, transparent deadlines and calls to simplify bureaucratic processes.[18]

Secondly, UNCEM directly entered into contact with private operators involved in the implementation process and in the telecommunications sector at large. In 2019, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Open Fiber, the concessionaire tasked with building the public broadband infrastructure in white areas, in order to establish closer collaboration with local administrations. UNCEM further sought intermediate solutions with other telecommunications providers to bridge the gap until full implementation of the plan by Open Fiber. For instance, an agreement with Eolo aimed at quickly providing fixed wireless (FWA) solutions in low-density areas, and TIM started integrating its own developing optic fiber network with the one under construction by Open Fiber in order to accelerate capillary coverage of white areas.[19]

Thirdly, UNCEM engages in formation activities on the Digital Agenda and BUL Plan, and actively collects and disseminates information on the digital divide in mountain territories. For instance, information on the digital divide was recently gathered in a comprehensive dossier, including statistical data, outcomes of political meetings, expert opinions and reports on the state of advancement of the BUL Plan.[20]

Assessment of the Practice

The Italian broadband strategy originally envisaged universal coverage with high-speed internet by 2020. In early 2021, the rate of implementation of the BUL Plan lies at 59 per cent.[21] Slowly, the urban-rural broadband divide is closing, but at a rate far slower than anticipated. The lagging pace of implementation ended up further penalizing mountain localities during the pandemic and resulted in mayors of mountain municipalities and UNCEM as the LGA of their representation feeling alienated.[22] While it is difficult to isolate the impact of UNCEM’s interventions, it should be noted that some re-adjustment measures adopted by the national government to tackle implementation delays actually respond to the demands brought forward by the LGA. For instance, measures include stronger oversight over the implementation process and greater transparency, as well as proposals for simplification to accelerate bureaucratic processes (e.g. the limitation of veto rights).[23] Even though it could not entirely prevent the slowdown in the implementation process, UNCEM is seen altogether as having played a highly strategical and important role as representative of the small municipalities[24] and facilitator between public and private actors.[25] It seems difficult to say with certainty what caused this slowdown. But one should caution against always (only) blaming bureaucratic inertia as collaboration with private actors is often as much prone to delays.[26]   

A tangible achievement that formally enshrines collaboration with the national government in overcoming the digital divide is a Protocol of Understanding signed between UNCEM and the former Digitalization Minister Paola Pisano. Collaboration under the Protocol comes in the form of information exchange and confers on UNCEM the role of intermediary between the national government and municipalities. In this role, UNCEM is tasked with the collection of any data that may facilitate the implementation process of the Digital Agenda (Article 2(1) of the Protocol). Furthermore, dialogue between UNCEM, Open Fiber and Infratel resulted in the latter enacting a series of technological simplification measures, with UNCEM acting as an intermediary in tackling delays in authorization processes by sensitizing local governments to technological details.[27] These examples hint at UNCEM being able to carve out an intermediary role for itself in addressing the Italian broadband divide. This mediating position does not only concern the traditional, vertical relations between (mountain) municipalities and higher-level public bodies, but also extends to the relations between local governments and private service providers. As for the role of the national government vis-à-vis private companies, it has been suggested that better use could have been made of its bargaining power, i.e. by exerting pressure on companies to not only provide infrastructure in big cities where this is profitable but also in mountain municipalities where there is less of a market incentive for doing so.[28] Overall, however, there seems to be a broad consensus that the initiative’s objective to remove the ‘white or grey areas’ not covered by the market has been achieved.[29]

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

Framework Agreement for the Development of Ultra-Broadband on the National Territory Toward the EU2020 Objectives, 11 February 2016

State Law no 158/2017 on Small Municipalities

Law Decree no 18/2020 ‘Cure Italy’

Protocol of Understanding between the Minister of Technological Innovation and Digitalization and the National Union of Mountain Towns and Communities UNCEM, 24 July 2020

European Commission, ‘A Digital Agenda for Europe’ (Communication) COM (2010) 245 final

Presidency of the Council of Ministers, ‘Strategia italiana per la banda ultralarga: Piano di investimenti per la diffusione della banda ultralarga’ (2015)

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Allain-Dupré D and others, ‘The Territorial Impact of Covid-19: Managing the Crisis across Levels of Government (OECD 2020)

Bussone M and Lupatelli G (eds), ‘La montagna in rete’ (dossier, UNCEM 2020)

Infratel, ‘Banda ultralarga nei comuni montani: Per il superamento del digital divide’ (Infratel Italia SpA 2020)

Infratel, ‘Stato di avanzamento del Piano strategico per la banda ultralarga’ (Infratel Italia SpA 2021)

Seljan S, Miloloža I and Pejić Bach M, ‘E-Government in European Countries: Gender and Ageing Digital Divide’ (2020) 16 Interdisciplinary Management Research 1563

Website on the BUL Plan, <>

[1] Dorothée Allain-Dupré and others, ‘The Territorial Impact of Covid-19: Managing the Crisis across Levels of Government’ (OECD 2020) 46ff.

[2] On the digital divide as a barrier to e-government use in Europe, see Sanja Seljan, Ivan Miloloža and Mirjana Pejić Bach, ‘E-Government in European Countries: Gender and Ageing Digital Divide’ (2020) 16 Interdisciplinary Management Research 1563.

[3] As compared to Spain (89.3), Poland (65.5), Croatia (57.3), Germany (52.5); and Austria (37.2). Malta scores highest (100), Greece lowest (31.6). See European Commission, ‘The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI)’ (European Commission, 2020)                <> accessed 26 February 2021.

[4] Letter from Marco Bussone (President UNCEM) to several ministers, on the digital divide and implementation of the National Ultra-Broadband Plan (5 May 2020). 

[5] Other than high-speed internet, the urban-rural digital divide in Italy concerns poor to dysfunctional mobile phone networks and TV signal, both most felt in mountain municipalities. This threefold digital divide negatively affects local administrations, citizens and companies and threatens to further exacerbate social and economic inequalities within the pandemic context. See Marco Bussone and Giampiero Lupatelli (eds), ‘La montagna in rete’ (dossier, UNCEM 2020) 17-25; UNCEM, ‘Il digital divide alimenta divari sociali ed economici, anche in tempi di emergenza coronavirus. “Svegliamo il piano BUL”’ (UNCEM, 27 February 2020) <> accessed 23 February 20201.

[6] European Commission, ‘A Digital Agenda for Europe’ (Communication) COM (2010) 245 final, 4f and 18ff.

[7] Presidency of the Council of Ministers, ‘Strategia italiana per la banda ultralarga: Piano di investimenti per la diffusione della banda ultralarga’ (2015); in the following referred to as the ‘BUL Plan’. The right of small and undeveloped municipalities to benefit from the measures provided for by the Ultra-Broadband Strategy and the correlated investment plan as a means to reach the objectives enshrined in the European Digital Agenda was further cemented in 2017 by Article 8(1) of the State Law no 158/2017 on Small Municipalities.

[8] COBUL includes the Prime Minister, several ministries (Ministry of Economic Development, of Public Administration, of Regional Affairs, of Territorial Cohesion, of Agriculture, Food and Forestry), the President of the Conference of the State, Regions and Autonomous Provinces, as well as Infratel Italia. Technical support is provided by the Agency for Digital Italy (AGID) and the Agency for Territorial Cohesion.

[9] For more information on Italy’s Multilevel Conference System, see report section 5.1. on Intergovernmental Relations of Local Governments in Italy, and report section 5.2. on the Inclusion of Local Governments in Italy’s Multilevel Conference System of Intergovernmental Relations.

[10] Framework Agreement for the Development of Ultra-Broadband on the National Territory toward the EU2020 Objectives, 11 February 2016; Ministry of Economic Development, ‘Governance’ (Strategic Plan Banda Ultralarga, undated) <> accessed 20 February 2021.

[11] For public-private partnerships as another form of intervention given difficult market contexts, see report section 2.2. on Public-Private Partnerships in Social Housing.

[12] The European financial sources, drawn from the European Funds for Regional Development (FESR) and the European Rural Development Funds (ERDF), are managed independently by the regions on the basis of the above-mentioned framework agreements between MISE and each region.

[13] For a concise overview over the contents of the BUL Plan, and for details on the financial sources, governance and the implementation process, see the MISE’s dedicated website <>.

[14] See BUL Plan, above, 11.

[15] Ministry for Economic Development, ‘Piano Banda Ultralarga – completamento dell’intervento nelle “aree bianche” e avvio della Fase II‘; UNCEM, ‘Digital Divide: I ministri Pisano e Provenzano rispondono a UNCEM’ (UNCEM, 15 May 2020) <>.

[16] UNCEM, ‘Banda ultralarga, piano troppo lento’ (UNCEM, 28 January 2020) <> accessed 23 February 2021.

[17] UNCEM is a private non-profit association on the basis of the civil law, enjoying statutory and financial autonomy. Its members consist of municipalities, unions of municipalities, municipal associations, consortia, and provinces, as well as national parks, in mountain territories (Art 5 of UNCEM’s statute) and therefore at least in part also of public-law entities. UNCEM, according to its statute, represents the interests of its member organizations vis-à-vis, and collaborates with, public bodies, unions and international organizations. In promoting the interests of mountain territories it subscribes conventions and agreements with public as well as private entities (Art 2). See the statute of UNCEM, approved by the 15th Congress (2020) <>.

[18] Letter from Marco Bussone (President UNCEM) to several ministers, on the digital divide and implementation of the National Ultra-Broadband Plan (5 May 2020).

[19] Such intervention outside the BUL framework was possible on the legal basis of Article 82 of the ‘Cure Italy’ Law Decree no 18/2020 that calls on telecommunications providers to potentiate their networks in order to cushion some of the negative socio-economic repercussions of the pandemic. During and beyond the months of the 2020 spring lockdown, TIM connected 1,500 municipalities, corresponding to half the amount of municipalities Open Fiber should have connected since 2018. See UNCEM, ‘Banda ultralarga nei comuni italiani’ (UNCEM, 16 September 2019) <> accessed 23 February 2021; and —— ‘Montagna – “Rete unica con TIM per vincere digital divide”’(QC, 13 August 2020)      <> accessed 26 February 2021.

[20] Bussone and Lupatelli (eds), ‘La montagna in rete’, above.

[21] Infratel, ‘Stato di avanzamento del Piano strategico per la banda ultralarga’ (Infratel Italia SpA 2021) 22.

[22] UNCEM, ‘Banda ultralarga nei comuni italiani’, above.

[23] See Bussone and Lupatelli (eds), ‘La montagna in rete’, above, 98-103.

[24] Interview with Emanuele Padovani, Associate Professor, Department of Management, University of Bologna (7 May 2021).

[25] Statement by Emanuele Padovani, Associate Professor, Department of Management, University of Bologna (LoGov Country Workshop, Local Responsibilities and Public Services, 28 April 2021).

[26] Statement by Marco di Giulio, Research Associate, Department of Political Science, University of Genova (LoGov Country Workshop, Local Responsibilities and Public Services, 28 April 2021).

[27] Infratel, ‘Banda ultralarga nei comuni montani’, above, 8.

[28] Interview with Walter Tortorella, Head of Department of Studies of Territorial Economics, IFEL Foundation (21 May 2021).

[29] Interview with anonymous expert, ANCI (18 May 2021); Interview with Walter Tortorella, Head of Department of Studies of Territorial Economics, IFEL Foundation (21 May 2021).